Film Festival Success PUBLISH OR PERISH Releases Nationwide: A Discussion with Writer-Director David Liban, and Producer Jonathan Miller
Tenure thriller. Roll that around on your tongue. Tenure thriller. We don’t get a lot of those, do we? Not your conventional programmer! Seeking to fortify this underserved subgenre — or, perhaps, to create it — the new dark-comic film Publish or Perish explores the struggles of an ambitious, Colorado-based English professor desperate to reach that academic promised land. However, a cantankerous dean, conniving students, a lethal mishap, and some seriously unfortunate choices yield considerably more than status and job security.
Fresh off the festival circuit in which it picked up several awards including Best Feature (the U.K.’s Crystal Palace International Film Festival), Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Actor (Beaufort International Film Festival), Best Comedy (Sunscreen Film Festival), plus other awards and many official selections throughout the U.S. and U.K., Publish or Perish, acquired by Buffalo 8, bows on Amazon, Vudu, and cable across the U.S. on August 18th.
As it turns out, the writer-director of Publish or Perish, David Liban, also happens to be a tenured professor in Colorado —he’s the chairperson of the University of Colorado-Denver, Department of Film & Television, and holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and is a Fulbright Scholar — in addition to making films for over two decades. Producer Jonathan Miller, making his feature-film debut with Publish or Perish, serves as President and CEO of Alation Media, and its parent company, diversified financial services firm Parsonex Enterprises, having founded both companies. I spoke with Mr. Liban and Mr. Miller — hereafter David and Jonathan, respectively — and I began with an obvious but useful note of irony in the wake of their edgy production, asking David how he really feels about academia.
“That’s very funny,” concedes the film prof, who also produced. “I would say that academia has provided me with a terrific career, and a wonderful work/life balance. I love teaching. I am not a fan of the red tape and hierarchies that exist in academia, which is reflected in the movie. But at the same point, I love my job.”
And how about the influence of academia on the script?
“Going through tenure, it’s a highly stressful process. If you don’t get tenure, you essentially lose your job. I had a lot of ‘what if?’ scenarios running through my mind when I was going through tenure, and I thought they were humorous, and I just jotted them down. When I started writing the screenplay, they just kind of came out. It’s purely a fictional piece, but it’s certainly inspired by things that have actually occurred, aside from the death of students.”
I ask David about one of the featured students in the film, with whom he shares a surname.
“Yeah, that’s my son, Caleb, he’s a terrific actor,” the director enthuses. “He also is studying film at Arizona State University. We worked together when he was a boy on a previous feature, A Feral World (a 2020 coming-of-age post-apocalyptic tale which is available internationally). Now he’s an athlete in college, but he still wants to be involved in films, so we auditioned and cast him. Great working with him.”
Fielding a question about the various permutations of the screenplay, David offers some plot details we’ll omit here, but helpfully explains his technique:
“There’s different ways of writing scripts. Some people are very much into outlining. And other people just write where a story goes. I knew the inciting incident in the story, and I knew how it ended. 95% of this movie has our protagonist in it. The process was really just creating the obstacles in getting to those places, and what he goes through to get there. It’s really me playing with the obstacles and the people. Everything that he does in this movie is a barrier or a blockade, or there’s always something that’s causing him some sort of delay or stress.
“Then it’s kind of inspired by relationships I’ve had with people in previous institutions,” David adds.
Highlighting that Publish or Perish is fiction, I suggest that there’s death and mayhem and huge amounts of stress, but also some amusement along the way, so I ask both men about finding the film’s tone.
“That was a very conscious decision,” David emphasizes. “I really love movies like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, from the Coen brothers; and even Under the Silver Lake [dir: David Robert Mitchell]. That’s the kind of thing that makes me laugh. As a viewer, I don’t really respond well to slapstick or silliness. I like the grounded type of humor. So that was a very conscious decision.
“I have another son, his name’s Ethan, and when he saw the movie, he was wildly uncomfortable. Granted, he was 12 years old at the time. But he asked me: ‘Why is the dean, who really didn’t do anything wrong, the guy that we hate, but the guy who’s doing all these terrible things we kind of like, and we want him to succeed?’ I feel really proud that I got that question, because that’s exactly what I was going for, to understand his dilemma. There’s rationalization in his insanity. I really wanted him to be sympathetic, so I added him showing how much he loves his daughter, and how much he loves his wife. Then he does these terrible things, accidental, but still he doesn’t handle it properly That is where the story lives in my mind. Do you have any thoughts on that?” David asks producer Jonathan:
“First of all, it was challenging,” Jonathan chimes in, adding the second voice to this dual interview. “We talked about the business side of it. But I think it’s very interesting, because I wouldn’t say dark comedy is what I am normally drawn to. But this was different. Having looked at and read a lot of scripts, I also think it appeals to a lot of people. My wife really loves the film. When we did the original screening, we got EDO [stats] data back, and it was 83%, either very favorable or favorable, which is very high. That’s across a very wide spectrum. This is not a film for academics, but more a film for people who can relate to mounting frustration, tremendous pressure — so I think it has broad appeal.
“I would just say that, to David’s point, we had to be very intentional. Especially in the edits, and in how we presented certain things, because with dark humor, you can get away with almost anything as long as it’s funnier than it is dark. But you cross that line, you lose the audience, they stop rooting for the antagonist.” (Freudian slip or no, Jonathan does refer to their protagonist as an antagonist. Protagonist? Antagonist? Maybe an antihero? Viewer: You decide.)
I segue to the characters and casting, as the film feels firmly Gen-X, caught between the haughty Boomer establishment, and WTF? Millennial shenanigans.
“I appreciate that those comments are very perceptive. And you’re the first person to point that out,” David says, gratifying the interviewer. “That was very intentional. I would say that the character of Jim [the lead] speaks my inner thoughts. I don’t behave the way he does, or would, but like, him muttering under his breath, and judging people that he doesn’t like, it’s kind of like what happens in my head, a lot of the time. My wife pokes fun at it, so I see the humor in it.”
David heaps praise upon his cast, culled from their mountain region, including Anastasia Davidson as Jim’s wife, Allison, and Bonnie Clarisse Utter as their nose-ring-’n’-tats daughter, Amy (child version played by Jayden Bowry). “That was another reason for me to Save the Cat, so to speak,” he says, citing the popular screenwriting manual which includes hints of adding sympathy to one’s characters. “We were like, ‘Oh, no, don’t put that in your nose. You’re gonna hurt yourself.’ Like he cares about her and, you know, that kind of thing.”
Lead actor Timothy “Tim” McCracken is a friend David hired to teach acting as a chairman of their department, and also appeared in David’s previous film. “My relationship with him expanded my skills as a director,” he reveals. “He really inhabits the roles that he takes on and, prior to shooting, we would meet once a week, and he would go through the script line by line: ‘What’s going on here? Why am I doing this?” I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s terrific. I didn’t think about it that way.’ So he took it to the next level with Jim Shanklin [who plays the difficult dean]. Tim had worked with James on a play here in Denver called Anna Karenina, and so he recommended Jim Shanklin as a potential Dean Crawley. I reached out to him and he did an audition tape for us. He looks the part, and he nailed it.”
Onscreen, daughter-Amy’s hipster-perv-wannabe-filmmaker boyfriend — a character whose efforts David discussed in shorthand with his DP, Trevr [sic] Merchant, as “shitty student film” (it’s called, ha, “Song of Pain”) — is portrayed by one of his real-life students, Nick James (with whom he’d workshopped a scene from The Ref, if you can believe that semi-obscure reference). And softening his appraisal of the cinematic attempts of youth as depicted in his feature, David adds, “Even though we shot on a 4k camera, we made it look like VHS. All those things were part of the pretentious film, and you know, just the silliness of it. Not being aware how silly it is.”
On the casting and production in general, Jonathan elaborates: “This is the first film that I’ve produced. and financed, and everybody was like, ‘Do a comprehensive casting process!’ We did, and we actually conducted it during Covid, so we received video auditions. There’s not much film in Colorado, so there were a lot of submissions, a lot of interest, so we really got to curate through that. Knowing Tim and his abilities, David was pretty adamant that he was going to deliver in the lead role, and and he did, winning Best Actor and all kinds of festival awards.”
David concurs: “Prior to me meeting Jonathan, everyone was telling me no, you can’t use Tim, you can’t use him. But it wasn’t like we were rolling in the money to hire Sam Rockwell or whomever. I felt like we had a gift here: he was willing to do the work, and he was there, and he’s still involved.”
If you’d like to get involved in the perils of Publish or Perish, it’s available on Amazon, Vudu, and cable, starting August 18th.
This interview has been edited for clarity.